“Arab and Sephardi Pastries Are Too Sweet”: Sugar, Power, Taste, and the Politics of Sweets

Nota bene: this post takes a more academic turn than past posts.

This post starts because I wanted to make qatayef for Shavuot. (Sadly, I ran out of time before the holiday to make them.) Qatayef are pancakes, filled with sweet white cheese or walnuts, which are then fried and served with a rosewater-infused syrup. They are native to the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – and are frequently served both for Ramadan, which is currently occurring, and by Syrian Jews for Shavuot. Qatayef are extremely popular in Arab communities around the world, and new types of the pastry are constantly created – for example, filled with Nutella. Like their Muslim and Christian neighbors, Jewish communities from Syria served them for festivals for centuries, and continue to do so in diaspora. The cheese variety is considered a specialty of Shavuot, and other Jewish communities have since taken on to eating them. When Shavuot coincides with Ramadan, as it does this year, one could also say it is qatayef season. Indeed, who would not want a season of delicious, spongey dough filled with luscious cheese and nuts, with the sugary taste of syrup dancing on your tongue?

Qatayef with cheese and pistachios
A more open qatayef with sweet cheese and ground pistachios – they look so yummy! (Photo Abbad Diraneyya via Wikimedia Commons)

In case you couldn’t tell, I personally think qatayef are awesome.

While looking up recipes for qatayef ­– which are also called atayef or ataif, I recalled the prior times I had eaten them: most notably, one time in an overheated Syrian pastry shop in Queens. I had been with an Ashkenazi Israeli acquaintance, who waved his hand dismissively as he told me “all these Arab and Sephardi pastries are far too sweet.” And indeed, I had heard many Ashkenazim claim that the traditional desserts of the Middle East, or North Africa, or the Balkans, and the sweets of the Jews of these regions were all a tad more sugary than tasteful. “Cloying.” “Intoxicating.” “Too sweet.”

“Too sweet,” you say?

Qatayef in syrup
Delicious qatayef bathing in glorious attar. (Photo Hasan Isawi via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

Okay, let’s back up here for a moment. “Too sweet” from Ashkenazim is kind of cute in a quaint and awkward way, given that we serve things like taiglach, little pastries that are literally doused and boiled in honey. I hate taiglach with a burning and fiery passion, but among things that I like from the Ashkenazi tradition, we find macaroons exploding with sugar, hamantashen stuffed with ever-sweeter fillings, and sour cream cakes that seem to have an expanding sugar topping as the years go by. You get the idea: we can be “too sweet.” That said, white Gentiles have also called our sweets “too sweet.” (And the food other things – this will be in two or three posts’ time.) This is also supremely awkward and tragically quaint. Let us not forget that White Middle America serves the dessert salad, which may even contain combinations of Cool Whip, Snickers bars, and Jell-O. Meanwhile, élite coastal America has gone on a juice craze in which ever-sweeter, ever-more-sugary drinks substitute for solid foods. Who has an oversized sweet tooth now?

To be fair, we shouldn’t be shaming people for having a sweet tooth. But the “proper amount of sweetness” – and whose food is “too sweet” – is always a very political determination. Just as Ashkenazim, who hold power and privilege in Israel, deemed Mizrahi food to be “too spicy” or “too peppery” in the 1950s, so too have other foods of the non-elite been called too extreme in flavor. The food of “Russians” (also Ashkenazi!) was too salty, the food of “Arabs” too fatty, the food of the Yemenites “too pungent.” And the sweets like qatayef, of course, were far too extremely sweet – or so it was said – for the Ashkenazi tongue. This is akin, as I noted above, to how Ashkenazi sweets (and sour foods too!) were held in low regard by American “reformers” in the early 20th century, or how the food of the black working class is considered “too fatty” or “too sweet” by the white middle class here in the United States. Sweetness is always political.

semolina halva
Turkish sweets are also often called “too sweet” by Westerners – but they are often so delicious, like this nutty, toasty semolina halva (ırmık helvası) I enjoyed in İzmir. (Photo mine, May 2015)

But sweetness is also a way of showing “good taste.” After all, “taste” is about status at the end of the day – as the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu noted, “taste” and “knowledge” are the cornerstones of marking oneself as “elite.” So too – as Bourdieu himself noted, famously in his chart of the food space, that certain tastes showed more knowledge of food, more cultural and economic capital, and thus higher status. It is the same with sweetness in the Jewish world – a certain type of sweetness is othered and ethnicized as “Mizrahi” and “lower-class,” but that same “natural-sweetness” can be celebrated in an “Ashkenazi” or “elite” dessert. (Apply as you will to other ethnocultural contexts.) At the same time, it is also reversed: the love of something exotic and recherché, (which is for many folks Mizrahi and Arab sweets!) can also show higher-status standing whilst sticking with “traditional” or more well-known foods shows a lack of “cultural capital.” One interesting consequence of multiculturalism is that “knowing” an “exotic” dish – itself a deeply politically loaded term – can score you status points even as its key flavorings are dismissed as “bad taste” in the cultural economy. It is a show of high cultural and economic status to “know” and even be at ease– and I borrow Shamus Khan’s use of “ease” here – with the sweetness of a dessert, but at the same time be able to declare it “too sugary.” So it is good taste to know qatayef, but it is also good taste to recoil at the joyous sweetness it brings.

Whose “sweet” is “too sweet?” This, I have demonstrated, is as much a question of social status as it is of physical taste and ideologies of “what is good for you.” It is also perhaps biological – as Bee Wilson noted in her book First Bite, many of the base limits of our tastes are dependent on what we eat in early childhood. That might limit some of the kinds of sweetness we like, but it does not change the politics of how we express it. When qatayef and kanafeh and baklava are dismissed as too sweet in a Jewish context, it is inflected with a context that is not quite as present for other foods.

Permit me an anecdote: a few weeks after the qatayef incident, the same friend who called them “too sweet” brought me two macarons from a well-known bakery. At the time, white-collar New York was in the midst of a macaron craze – everyone, it seemed, wanted an airy almond-meringue cookie with different “elegant” flavorings. The macaron was “classy.” It was recherché. It was more “elegant” and “refined” than a chocolate chip cookie. I’d had a macaron or two before – they were fine. These macarons were supposed to be “the real deal,’ though. I took one bite and…the sugar rush went straight to my head in a way it did not for qatayef, or brownies, or jams. It was so sweet. I did not say anything – it would be rude to turn down such an expensive gift – but I silently cringed as I finished the two macarons. I wonder now: would the declaration “macarons are too sweet” be taken as axiomatic as it is for qatayef or any Arab or Arab-Jewish confections?

The moral? Let people have their tastes, but also recognize that tastes are always socially inflected. So when we say that a group’s desserts are “too sweet,” do we mean only that they are too sweet? No, because if the sweets are from a community that we have power over – Mizrahim for Ashkenazim, Arabs for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, Jews and Arabs alike for White Gentiles in America – is it also a reflection that we have been taught, our tastes have been primed to find those things distastefully sweet. And part of unlearning that is to celebrate different tastes, but some of it is also to find where our own, in their power, can be critiqued.

Qatayef asafiri
A souped-up version of qatayef asafiri qatayef with cream – in Lebanon. (Photo Deed89 via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.


I recommend the qatayef recipe by Hala’s Kitchen, which is simple and easy to follow. For a more involved recipe, take a look at the recipe by Anissa Helou, one of my food heroes, whose post from before the Syrian Civil War is a painful look back at the now-bittersweet delicious memories of Damascus many Syrians hold.

Enjoy! (And to this blog’s Muslim readers, Ramadan mubarak wa-karim!)

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Shakshouka – Tunisian-Jewish Comfort Food (by Reader Request)

Shakshouka with bread

We have our first reader contribution! JD Hammond, a friend and urban planner extraordinaire, had some questions about shakshouka, a North African dish imported to Israel by Tunisian Jews in the 1950s. It comprises a vegetable ragout in which eggs are poached. Specifically, JD wants to know (paraphrased):

  1. How do we make it? He has made it before, but wants to know another recipe.
  2. How do we make it so pretty – specifically, regarding the eggs?
  3. How did this dish with this “remarkable intensity” of flavors evolve?
Tunisian shakshouka in a pan
Tunisian chakchouka, served in a pan with cilantro as garnish. (Gideon Tsang, Creative Commons via Wikimedia)

Shakshouka, celebrated in Israel as a “breakfast of champions,” has its origins in North Africa. The word comes from a Tamazight word for “vegetable sauce,” and eggs were added later by the Arab populations of North Africa. The dish later spread across the Arab world – from Iraq to Morocco – and became popular among the Jews of the region as well. In fact, shakshouka is still considered quintessential home cooking in Tunisia today. As this article states (in French), “try to tell a Tunisian at your risk and peril that shakshouka is an Israeli or American dish!” Yet it has come in many minds to be associated with Israel.

Shakshouka with bread
Shakshouka with bread, September 2014. Photo mine.

In the 1950s, Tunisian Jews brought the dish to the Israel which they immigrated to – and were, by and large, unwelcome in. (As it happens, a variant of the dish is also popular among Palestinians.) Shakshouka spread from the peripheral towns into Israeli cities, where – like other Arab Jewish and Arab dishes – it was appropriated and adopted into an Israeli national icon. Rather than admit the origins of the dish, a new etymology for the dish’s name, as originating from the Hebrew leshaqsheq (to shake), emerged. North Africans – Jews and Muslims alike – continue to make this dish in their own way, separate from the Israeli adaptation. Meanwhile, as more Israelis moved abroad in the 1980s, the dish became popular in the United States and Canada, and became the hipster breakfast du jour in recent years.

Chopped green bell peppers and habanero chilis
Peppers – bell and chili – chopped and awaiting their shakshouka fate. November 2015. Photo mine.

Of course, the way the dish has become popular is less than appealing – Ashkenazi Israelis “borrowing” the dishes of North African Jews and Palestinians whose cultures they sought to erase, then calling it their own. In addition, many argue that those such as myself who are post-Zionist should eschew the “Israeli” for the “diasporan.” Yet shakshouka is also a very clear example of how diaspora works, and how diaspora affects what we eat. Firstly, I would like to note that this dish was consumed in the Jewish diaspora for centuries before the state of Israel was even imagined – how is shakshouka not a food of “diaspora”? Secondly, I do not think that we can run away from Israel or misdeeds there if we are to explore Jewish food and its history – given that Israel, like it or not, looms large over Jewish life around the world. Finally, I think we can still enjoy the remarkable mix of flavors shakshouka provides while acknowledging its North African origins.

Tomatoes, peppers and chilis, onions, and spices laid out for cooking.
Tomatoes, peppers and chilis, onions, and spices laid out for cooking. November 2015, photo mine.

Indeed, shakshouka is versatile, intense, and remarkable. The vegetables’ softness and peppers’ spice meld against the egg yolk and firm whites to create an experience that seems simple but is so very complex: no two bites are the same. It is also versatile: the variations are legion, from the simple varieties encouraged on Tunisian expatriate forums to the complex, cheese-laden ones that have become popular on certain upscale food blogs. My friend David, who was familiar with the latter, found the recipe I used “lazy” – but in a good way, in that it is simple. Indeed, shakshouka can be and often is simple. That is key to its beauty – and it is what drew JD into wanting to make it.

Onions and spices frying in the pan
Onions and spices – key in the flavor base of the shakshouka. November 2015, photo mine.

JD’s biggest question was “how can you poach the eggs and keep them intact, without babysitting them?” I have bad news: you do really need to “babysit them.” Eggs are fragile and finicky creatures, and if you are attached to having a delightfully runny yolk and/or an aesthetic shakshouka, you will need to keep an eye on them. I advise that you make a well in the sauce, crack the egg in, and then carefully fold the whites into the sauce. You need to watch to make sure the eggs don’t overcook, and that they get in in the first place. Practice makes perfect! See the recipe for more information.

Cracking eggs into shakshouka
Right after dropping the eggs in – the ones dropped first are beginning to cook but this is where folding and “babysitting” are key! There is no lazy way with eggs in shakshouka. November 2015, photo mine. [Apologies for the rather ugly quality of this photo.]
Spicing and vegetable chopping are also frequent questions with shakshouka. Different regions have different textures for chopping vegetables and length of time the ragout is cooked, which affects the “softness” of the sauce. Some add peppers, some do not. Some use very piquant and hot spices, whereas others prefer a milder dish. In Tunisian recipes, the ragout tends to rely on more roughly chopped fresh vegetables and sinus-destroying spice, whereas Israeli and Palestinian adaptations tend to be finer. I stick with a fiery, rough shakshouka, but JD himself has globalized the recipe with a variant involving Sriracha chili sauce and cayenne pepper.

Eating the shakshouka with pita. Photo in black and white.
Eating the shakshouka – I had already dug in before Amram reminded me to take a picture for you guys! The bread is a typical pita. November 2015, photo mine.

The shakshouka here is closer to the variant common in Tunisia than that common in Israel.  One common ingredient in an Israeli shakshouka is tomato paste (the canned stuff), an ingredient I abhor in most circumstances, which often tends to become quite globby in the frying process. Tunisian shakshouka relies largely on fresh tomatoes (or canned, but not paste), and often uses a wonderfully larger amount of cilantro – my favorite spice. My recipe is based on two Tunisian recipes and one by Einat Admony, the Israeli genius-chef behind Balaboosta, one of New York’s most fantastic restaurants.

 

Shakshouka

Based on an amalgam of the recipes of Orly Olivier, Marmiton (French), and Einat Admony. I make several variations of this recipe.

Serves 2-6, depending on your hunger level and stomach size

1 large onion, diced

3 bell peppers, seeded and chopped into one-two inch rectangles or squares

1-3 small hot chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped – the amount you use depends on the spice level of the pepper and your own tolerance; I tend to stick with three smaller habaneros

4 plum tomatoes, diced or chopped

1-2 tbsp olive or vegetable oil (olive is better)

1 tbsp vinegar (many vinegars work)

1 tbsp salt

1 tbsp dried cilantro

1.5 tsp ground cumin

1.5 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp ground oregano

1 tsp thyme

1 tsp dried rosemary

1 tbsp garlic powder or 1 clove crushed fresh garlic

2/3 cup water

6 large eggs

 

Bread for serving (optional)

 

  1. Chop up your vegetables. I am including this as a separate step for this recipe because this is very important factor to budget into your time.
  2. Heat a large frying pan, shallow wide saucepan, or similar pan, and add the oil. Then, add the onions and sauté until soft.
  3. Add the peppers (bell and chili) and continue sautéing. If you are using fresh garlic, add it here.
  4. When the peppers begin to soften, add the salt, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, oregano, thyme, and rosemary and mix in thoroughly. Keep sautéing.
  5. After a minute or so, add the vinegar. Sauté for another minute.
  6. Add the tomatoes and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for a few minutes, or until the tomatoes begin to soften. Add the water and simmer until the tomatoes are soft, and the skin has separated from the tomatoes’ fleshy part. The water should have mostly cooked down by this point.
  7. When the tomatoes and peppers are cooked until soft, it is time to add the eggs. Make six wells in the tomato-pepper mixture and crack an egg into each one. Then carefully tuck the whites of the eggs into the surrounding tomato-pepper mixture, being careful to leave the yolk alone. If you want your eggs to be super pretty, I would suggest cracking them first into a cup or several cups individually, then putting them in the shakshouka. You will need to “babysit” your eggs – the whites can be finicky. If you want your yolks solid, crack the yolk *after* folding in the whites. If your wells are deep enough, folding should be fairly simple – just push the tomato-pepper mix over the whites!
Raw eggs in cups pre-cooking
Cracking the eggs into cups to put into the shakshouka – thus they retain their integrity and the yolks can stay unbroken! November 2015, photo mine.

You should still have a little white visible on top, because…

  1. When the whites are cooked through and solid, your shakshouka is ready. Remove from the heat and serve as soon as possible. Serving in the pan and having folks dig in and help themselves is the easiest, but a wide spoon does the trick and keeps the eggs intact. I prefer to serve shakshouka with warm bread.

 

Author’s note: if you have leftover chili peppers, I heartily recommend trying the A Fiery Law cocktail, a brilliant creation by my friend, the “Kiddush Club President” of Tippling Through The Torah.